Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pork in the Park, Salisbury MD April 18-19

BBQ Gremlins; fact or fiction

BBQ Gremlins, do they exist? Many have pondered this age-old question ever since the Caveman first put fire to meat. The debate has raged for years, rivaling the argument about Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. While I can not say that I have ever personally observed these pesky creatures, I have observed the signs left behind when they decide to pay you a visit. I can not say for sure, but if you ever get a chance to capture or possibly photograph one of these little buggers, you would be set for life. I will caution you however, that there are several alleged Gremlin photos circulating around the internet and in the supermarket tabloids, but most have found to be fake. Use caution if you see one, my advice would be to observe from a distance, take a photograph, then grab him by the throat and throttle the life out of him. (I realize that this sounds a bit harsh, but if they ever pay you a visit, you will know what I mean) You can then stick the remains in a bottle of formaldehyde and go on the carnival/daytime talk show circuit; you’ll never have to work again, particularly after you appear on the Oprah Show.

The Salisbury Pork in the Park contest was scheduled for April 18 and 19th. The weatherman promised good weather and then he delivered. Two days of sunny mild weather was just great for mid April in the Del Mar Va area. Contest organizer Sandy Fulton told me early on that she had a weather connection and I believe her. The first two years of this contest had rain for both days. It seems after a rocky start; Sandy has managed wonderful weather for this year and last, I think she does have a weather guy! What Gremlins?

Our team was really looking forward to the season opener and a chance to get everyone together again. The contest at Salisbury has really grown, this year there were 83 teams. Some of the big names in BBQ were there which prompted many on the BBQ bulletin boards to say they would have to bring their A game, which I pretty much think they would have brought anyway.

Mike couldn’t make it to Salisbury, my wife Jo went along and had agreed to cook the chiefs choice on Friday night. Al was going to handle the Perdue chicken entry which was also set for Friday. Everyone else on the team was there, and we blasted off early Friday morning for what should have been a 3-hour tour. (remember Gilligans Island)

Note to self: when cooking in a contest of many teams, do not wait until arriving in the town where the contest is to be held before buying your garnish. We stopped at a Food Lion as soon as we hit Salisbury and the green leaf lettuce had already been picked over, what was left was not very attractive. Not to worry, we bought four crappy looking heads, (just in case), and Jo would run out later and grab a few better looking heads. She did run out, went to three stores and could not buy a head of green leaf, valuable lesson learned. The BBQ Gremlins were just warming up.

After stops for breakfast, charcoal, ice and garnish our three hour trip turned into a 4 1/2 hour trek. We were just glad to get there. Bobby, who worked a ½ day wasn’t far behind us and we left at 7 AM. Did I hear a giggling Gremlin?

We arrived and got set up without a hitch, met our neighbors, had a few beers and got the two Friday night categories turned in without too much difficulty. Later on our big meats went into our preheated Tall Boy right on schedule. A couple of fine cigars and all was well in our little corner of the world. We even had time for a little visiting. A nearly full moon along with warm temps made for a very delightful night. Who is afraid of a few Gremlins?

Saturday morning at 5:30 AM, my alarm sounded. It was sometime around 6:00 when I drug my large behind out of the rack to get the ribs into the smoke. While I was at it, I would check temperature on the big meats which had been cooking all night. To sum it up, they were not where they should have been, they were behind, way behind. This set the tone for the entire day. I tried everything I could but the bigs were standing still, the only thing getting done was a flat and picnic I had in the WSM, if all else failed, we would have something to turn in. As meats were wrapped and finished, I would move others between cookers. It was a game of musical chairs and the clock was ticking toward chicken time. I think the Gremlins had stayed up working while we slept, or so it seemed.

Did I mention the grease fire? Sometime after breakfast, as I was steadily jacking the temp up in the Tall Boy the Guru alarm sounded for a heat spike. I opened the door and found a grease fire in the lower section of the unit. Nothing like the smell of burning grease emitting from a cooker filled with unwrapped meat that was to be used for a contest entry, man, that ought to give us a good flavor! We extinguished the fire, cooled the cooker and moved on, what else could we do, it was nearing 10:00 AM. The Gremlins were laughing their Gremlin butts off.

I was behind on starting my chicken prep and rushing was not fun. I got everything ready and into the cooker for the first leg of the cook which by all previous time studies would take about 1.5 hours. The chicken came to temp in 1 hour, how could that happen? Those dam Gremlins. There is nothing like holding chicken for 30-40 minutes while all of the juice slowly leaves the area right before your eyes, what a feeling!

All of the pork eventually came off at temp and feeing done. The ribs were pretty much on schedule, but a slight miscalculation in time caused them to be a tad over cooked, but not too bad.

The brisket was another story. We eventually got it to temperature, but it sure didn’t “feel” done. We pulled them and tossed everything into the cooler to await turn in time. The Gremlins had to be holding their sides by this time.

I think I can offer a brief summary of our entries. Chicken, rubbery skin, moist inside, tender meat. A beautiful testament to my winters trials and tribulations, can we say time well spent, I think not, Gremlins again. Ribs, a little over cooked, not very pleasing to the eye, flavorful and tender, a bit dry. Pork, the picnic and one butt felt very good, the other butt was like pot roast, overall, I thought it was our best pork submission yet. The brisket, we cooked two packers and a flat. The first flat from a packer I cut into for a taste test actually looked like it emitted a cloud of dust. Did somebody say dry, as dry as a popcorn fart. A repeat occurred on the next packer flat. That left the flat we cooked solo. At least the knife would cut it, but I don’t think I would go so far as to use the word tender. That had to be Gremlins I heard earlier, somebody get a net.

We got everything into the boxes, and by the way, Lettuceman Erich did a yeoman’s job making good looking boxes from crappy looking lettuce. We were behind in time during the entire turn-in procedure. The ribs, I wanted to take out and rebuild the entire box, but we were down to two minutes to go, we had to close the lid and send them in. Gremlins at work.

As Erich was slicing the remaining brisket into pieces for the team to take home, he had to stop several times as he was overheating the electric knife. Man, that’s what I call a tender brisket, who wants some? Needless to say, I brought home a ton of brisket meat this week, oh well, it does make good chili. Maybe I’ll feed it to the Gremlins!

We packed up the gear and shuffled over for the awards. This was our fifth contest and I honestly sat down and thought there is no way we are getting a call in the strong field that was there. I was almost right, we heard our named called for 4th place pork. Pork, which had been our anchor in Landover and New Holland. Our first call ever for pork, in a field of 83, not too bad. Just when we thought we ran the Gremlins out of town, we left the contest without ever taking a team picture; I guess they got the last laugh.

The score sheets would show we finished 16th overall, a decent effort in a very strong field. Our scores were 49th chicken, 22nd ribs, 4th pork, 36th brisket, 11th Perdue Chicken, and 46th in chefs choice. Not bad despite the efforts of the BBQ Gremlins.

While no official confirmed Gremlin sightings were recorded in Salisbury this past weekend we feel certain they were present. The signs they leave behind were everywhere at our site. I would swear to you that I could hear them laughing at me several times, especially right after I put out the grease fire, although, the laughter could have been coming from the teams around us but I really don’t think that was likely. So, the myth continues. I cannot offer any solid evidence as to their existence, it is all circumstantial, as is evident by this story. I can only hope that their visits are not frequent, and hope not to see or hear them again for the rest of the season, and if I do, I think I have a trap that will work.

We had a ball, the weather was great. We saw some old friends and made some new, overall, the trip was a success. There was one bit of sad news announced at the cooks meeting Friday night. Shotgun Fred Pirkle, the inventor and manufacturer of the BBQ Guru and the Caldera Tall Boy that we use suffered a stroke at the contest site on Friday morning. For those that don’t know Fred, he is a real ambassador for the sport of BBQ cooking and an all round nice guy. Very few cooks take their walk to the stage to accept an award with as much enthusiasm as Fred. Thanks to the quick reaction of bystanders and local paramedics, they were able to get him quickly to the hospital in Salisbury. The BBQ Guru team went on to take a 1st place call in pork and finish a very respectable 12th over all. We wish Fred a speedy recovery and will keep him, his family, and the entire Guru gang in our thoughts and prayers and ask that you do as well. Thanks.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Seven days and counting

Checking my list and checking it twice

Today is April 11 our season opener is in Salisbury on April 18th , seven days from today. I have had all winter to get ready and guess what, I am behind. This past weekend I pulled everything out of the trailer, cleaned and organized all the drawers and boxes. Scrubbed the cooker and went over my checklist.

I still have a bunch of supplies to gather and of course, the last minute items. Why is it I feel like time is running away. I have 7 days left which includes a weekend, plenty of time, yea right. I think part of the feeling is anxiety and part is excitement. Both related to the new season beginning.

I think I need to listen to my own advice. Relax and have fun. That is what we will do. I have cooked a ton of various meats over the winter and have learned a very valuable lesson. I have learned that I do not know one dam thing about cooking BBQ, period. A very valuable lesson indeed.

One thing you can count on, we WILL have fun. I just received a new shipment of some mighty fine premium cigars, we have a jug of agave juice already on board. We are ready to go. If we get to Salisbury and don’t have it, we will buy it or we didn’t need it anyway!

I am looking forward to the new season, looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. I will enjoy hanging out with my teammates, drinking a few beers and maybe eating some good grub. If we get in the mood, we might even try our hand at some Que.

So, if you are out and about on the BBQ circuit this year and see our setup, please stop in, say hello, introduce yourself, sign our guest book and maybe have a cold drink. We would like to meet you. We would also like to take this time to wish all of the other competitor’s good luck and safe travels for the upcoming BBQ season. We look forward to seeing everyone again. Happy trails.